Australian Unions and the campaign for a Free East Timor - ACTU Australian Unions

Australian Unions and the campaign for a Free East Timor


On 30 August 2019, the Government of Timor-Leste awarded the Australian trade union movement with the Medal of the Order of Timor-Leste.

The Medal recognised the long history of Australian trade union support for the East Timorese struggle for independence during twenty-four years of Indonesian occupation.

Australian Unions is proud to celebrate this legacy of solidarity, and to remember the efforts of trade unionists across the decades who stood shoulder-to-shoulder with our sisters and brothers in East Timor during their David versus Goliath struggle.


Australian unions receive the Medal of the Order of Timor-Leste in Dili, August 2019.
L-R Thomas Mayor, Sally McManus, Martin Kingham, Michele O'Neil, Leigh Hubbard, Ged Kearney and Kate Lee 


The history of union solidarity with East Timor

In December 1975, Indonesian military forces invaded and occupied East Timor. Resistance forces took to the mountains and a guerrilla struggle began. Timorese leaders travelled internationally, seeking to raise awareness of Timor’s plight.

The Australian union movement stood behind these efforts, all the way.

Just a few months after the invasion, in April of 1976, the President of the Australian Council of Trade Unions (ACTU), Bob Hawke, travelled to Jakarta to make clear that Australian trade unions opposed the occupation.

Through Hawke, the ACTU expressed its “condemnation of the Indonesian occupation of East Timor and the continuing denial of human rights and self-determination for the people of that island”.

In the years of occupation that followed, Australian trade unions continued to show solidarity with the people of Timor.

From 1975 – 1978 trade unionists and Timorese activists in the Northern Territory, led by Brian Manning of the Waterside Workers Federation, maintained a radio link with the Timorese resistance organisation Fretilin. It was, for a time, the only link between the resistance and the outside world.

Manning recalled the difficulties of maintaining the link with Timor, being forced to evade police officers charged with silencing the broadcasts.

Throughout the decades, Australian Unions continued to support the Timorese independence movement through practical assistance. We also sought to highlight the brutality of the Indonesian occupation.

After a massacre of Timorese civilians by military forces in 1991 the ACTU condemned the Indonesian military’s actions. It pledged to support a solidarity peace ship, called the Lusitania Expresso, which planned to sail to Dili to lay wreathes for the victims in an attempt to highlight Timor’s plight.  

In 1993 the Australian Education Union worked with Portugal’s education union to raise Timor at the international meeting of the World Confederation of Organisations of the Teaching Profession.

In 1998 the Union Aid Abroad organisation APHEDA partnered with the Mary MacKillop Institute to support work on the ground in spreading literary and language programmes in the indigenous Tetum language, which had been banned by the occupying forces.



1999: Independence and the trade union “Campaign of Peace”

In 1999 the East Timorese struggle for independence reached a new peak.

After years of campaigning by the people of Timor, international pressure had grown on Indonesia over its occupation of the country. When, in 1998, the Indonesian dictator Suharto was overthrown, the new government agreed to a referendum on Timor’s status.

On August 30, 1999, a vote coordinated by the United Nations took place in which the people of East Timor were able to decide if they wished to be independent. Militias backed by the Indonesian military conducted a campaign of violence and intimidation, but the Timorese people bravely voted to be free.

In response, the militias escalated the violence to punish the Timorese. Many thousands were murdered, and up to two-hundred thousand East Timorese people were forced across the border into Indonesian-controlled West Timor. In the carnage, approximately 70% of East Timor’s infrastructure was destroyed.

Australian trade unions were appalled at the violence, and the inaction of our own government.

Australia has a long connection with East Timor. During World War Two Australian soldiers fought alongside the Timorese against the Japanese military. The Timorese people fed and protected our troops. In 1999, the Australian people clearly wanted to support the people of Timor in their David versus Goliath struggle.

The trade union movement sprang into action to show solidarity with the people of East Timor. The ACTU launched a “Campaign of Peace”, calling for the Australian government to push for a UN peacekeeping force to enter East Timor.

The ACTU led mass protests throughout major cities. 30,000 people flooded the streets of Sydney calling for action to end the violence. Soon after, 40,000 protested in Melbourne.

Unions also targeted Indonesian state-owned enterprises. This was intended to pressure the Indonesian government to allow peacekeepers into Timor. Trade unionists organised vigils outside Indonesian consulates and its embassy, as well as outside major Indonesian companies with links to the government. Teachers’ Unions organised to hold two minutes’ silence in schools across the country on Tuesday 7 September to raise awareness of Timor’s plight.

The Indonesian state-owned Garuda airline became a key target of union protests.

Garuda flew regular flights from Melbourne and Sydney to Bali. In September 1999, members of the Construction Union went to the Melbourne airport and protested a plane that was about to depart.

Members of the Australian Services Union on the flight crew and the Transport Workers Union who organised the baggage refused to handle freight on Garuda. The plane could not take off with its passengers. The protests grew, and soon regular vigils were being held at Garuda offices, and planned departures were protested.

In Sydney, thousands of union-led protestors brought the airport to a standstill to protest a Garuda flight. It sent a clear message: Australian unions would not stand idly by while the people of East Timor were being subjected to violence.

Once it was announced that an Australian-led UN peacekeeping force would enter East Timor, the protests against Garuda stopped. In a moment of great crisis for the people of East Timor, the Australian union movement had refused to be silent, but took action to demonstrate our solidarity with their cause for freedom.   



Union humanitarian support for East Timor

As well as campaigning to put pressure on the Australian and Indonesian governments, trade unions launched a humanitarian appeal to provide medical aid and other supplies to the people of East Timor. Jennie George, President of the Australian Council of Trade Unions, explained that this was a matter of principle, stating: ‘Australian unionists need to do all we can to support the human rights of the East Timorese people.’

The Union Aid Abroad agency, APHEDA, continued its work in supporting the East Timorese people through the appeal. APHEDA had already supported literacy programs in Timor, brought union delegations to the country, and raised money for food and medical supplies.

 In 1999, APHEDA coordinated with a wide range of unions to ensure as much was raised for, and distributed to, Timor as possible. The Australian Nursing Federation (now the ANMF) launched an appeal with Hazel Hawke as its patron, collecting over $200,000 worth of medical supplies in less than two weeks.

Union support for Timor-Leste and its people that continued after independence was won. Teachers from the Australian Education Union and Independent Education Union provided advice in establishing a new curriculum and with teacher training. Trade unionists from the Australian Services Union helped to train Timorese workers in the use of computer systems, Nursing Federation members assisted with medical training, and Construction Union (then-CFMEU) members continued their long tradition of solidarity with East Timor by building emergency shelters and a community education facility.

Australian unions also assisted in the development of independent trade unions in East Timor. On her first day as ACTU President Sharan Burrow was in Dili advising local activists how to set up trade unions. Burrow said: “The reconstruction of the newest nation of the 21st century must involve democratic organisations such as unions that speak for the people.”

The historian Daniel Hannington-Pinto has written in the “Labour History” journal of two union activists, Didge McDonald and Michael Killick who spent a substantial period in East Timor working with unionists to build organisations to represent the new nation’s workers. Their efforts represented the tradition of practical solidarity and cooperation between the Timorese liberation struggle and the Australian trade unionists who were proud to support them.

APHEDA continues its vital work in supporting the people of Timor-Leste in developing their own institutions and organisations for empowerment and social betterment, such as the Women’s Working Centre of Timor Leste and working with rural farmers organisations.

Australian Unions continues to support the people of East Timor and are proud of the legacy of solidarity and cooperation that has bound us together and unites us still.




Watch ACTU Secretary Sally McManus and ACTU President Michele O'Neil talk about Australian unions support for the East Timor independence struggle.


Find out more

Find out more about Union Aid Abroad – APHEDA’s projects in East Timor.

Read more about APHEDA and trade union solidarity with East Timor in Dani Cooper’s book, Livelihoods and Liberation Struggles, available for purchase and at major libraries.

Discover the history of international solidarity with East Timor and the involvement of trade unions at Professor Clinton Fernandes’s online Companion.

The historian Daniel Hannington-Pinto has written on the contribution Australian unionists have made to the development of trade unions in Timor-Leste. This can be accessed at the Labour History journal’s website. This journal may be available for free via the catalogue of your local or institutional library.

Get involved

The Australian union movement has a long, proud history of solidarity with international unions and working people worldwide. Be part of our movement by joining your union

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  • Leanne Shingles
    test actuonline
    published this page 2019-09-23 11:41:58 +1000